WASHINGTON — When tens of thousands of people poured through the streets of Washington D.C. last week at the nation’s largest annual anti-abortion gathering, numerous protesters wore a lilac beanie with a defiant slogan: “Pro-Life is Pro-Woman.”
Many outside the American anti-abortion movement still associate it with bloody images of supposedly aborted fetuses, or with people calling women who walk into abortion clinics “baby killers.” But in recent years, many of the movement’s leaders and youngest followers have increasingly adopted the imagery and lingo of progressive social justice, focusing not only on the supposed rights of the fetus but also on the woman who carries it.
This vanguard of activists argue that they’re the real defenders of women’s rights — and some are even using the f-word: feminism.
“I think we should take things back. Femininity is beautiful and that’s what a feminist is.”
The theme of this year’s March for Life was, in fact, “Pro-Life is Pro-Woman,” in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Signs that sought to highlight women’s roles and rights were everywhere, often evoking progressive tenets.
One fuchsia, hand-lettered sign read, “Women deserve better.” Another played off of a famous feminist slogan, asking, “If the future is female, then why are we killing them?” over the image of a feminine Venus symbol.
“I believe that feminism includes women who aren’t born yet,” said college student Amaya Durand, who carried a crimson sign that read, “A true feminist would fight for the rights of unborn women” as she protested in front of the Supreme Court. “I think the word, unfortunately, has been skewed and the color pink has always been associated with supporting Planned Parenthood, but that’s not the case. I think we should take things back. Femininity is beautiful and that’s what a feminist is.”
For conservative millennials and members of Gen Z, raised on social media and steeped in social justice in particular, the terminology deployed by anti-abortion feminists is familiar. It doesn’t even sound all that different from the arguments used by those who support the right to abortion.
“Pro-life feminism is this belief that we should be using our strength and liberation to fight for the marginalized, for the oppressed, for the vulnerable,” explained Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, the purple-haired founder of the group New Wave Feminists. The group has chapters throughout the United States and Latin America. Herndon-De La Rosa doesn’t want women to stay home and raise babies; instead, like generations of career-minded women before her, she wants them to “have it all.”
In her view, men offer women abortion instead of working on real solutions to societal problems.
“Instead of getting a piece of the pie, we’re basically settling for crumbs and saying, ‘OK, abortion’s the solution? Abortion’s how I’m gonna have a successful life and career?’” Herndon-De La Rosa said. “That just seems like B.S. to me.”
Young women who spoke to VICE News at the March for Life echoed Herndon-De La Rosa.
“If you’re gonna say, ‘I believe in women’s rights, I believe in all these things,’ do you also believe in their right to have children?”
“I believe that women should have absolutely everything men have, and that includes their bodies being supported in a way that supports all of them,” added Evan, a college student from Georgia who called herself a “very nontraditional feminist.” (She asked that her last name not be used.) At the march, she carried a sign that read, “Life empowers women.” “If you’re gonna say, ‘I believe in women’s rights, I believe in all these things,’ do you also believe in their right to have children?”
When abortion foes are criticized for being only “pro-birth” and failing to help new moms and babies, anti-abortion feminists frequently point to their work building programs for young people who are pregnant or parenting. Feminists for Life, the grandmother of the movement, runs the “Women Deserve Better” website, which compiles what it calls “practical resources and inspirational stories from women and men,” largely on parenting.
But while opponents of abortion argue that the procedure undermines women, there’s evidence that denying women abortions can rewrite the course of their lives. Research from a study by the University of California, San Francisco has found that women who are turned away at clinics can see their risk of living in poverty quadruple. They are less likely to have aspirational plans for the next year of their life and more likely to remain with abusive partners.
Among women who successfully undergo abortions, however, 95% later report that the procedure was the right decision for them.
Many young anti-abortion activists are also passionate about the human rights issues that motivate their more liberal peers. But their conservative views on abortion might mean they’re unwelcome among those groups, explained Laury Oaks, a University of California, Santa Barbara professor who’s studied anti-abortion feminists’ work on college campuses.
Adopting “pro-life feminism,” or framing their anti-abortions beliefs as pro-woman, can offer young activists a back-door entrance into the social justice causes championed by stars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, who’ve built brands around feminism.
“You can see that the anti-abortion movement has been really savvy at getting the messages out to youth. Like the anti-violence message now is really strong — which of course that is about what they are saying is the ‘violence’ of abortion — but it fits in with gun violence and anti-gun violence messages,” Oaks said. “They get to be anchored in different worlds that pro-life feminism allows not to be in contradiction.”
In theory, anyway. “Pro-life feminism” has been around for a while: Feminists for Life launched in 1972, during the peak of the U.S. women’s rights movement and the year before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide. But the ideology has rarely made inroads into mainstream feminism, which remains staunchly supportive of abortion rights. In 2017, Women’s March organizers removed the New Wave Feminists from a list of partner organizations and said that accepting them had been a mistake.
“We recognize, as the suffragists did, that a woman’s capacity to have a child is amazing and it’s inherent to who she is as a person.”
Feminists for Life President Serrin Foster said she’s tried to work on both sides of the aisle. After she started with the group, more than 25 years ago, she said she’d attend ACLU meetings in the morning and then stop by the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation in the afternoon. Still, Foster said, Feminists for Life was for years seen as “kind of a fringe organization and not part of the mainstream.”
That began to change, she said, once the organization unearthed information that suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul opposed abortion. For modern anti-abortion feminists, this proved that their brand of feminism was the rightful heir to the first-wave feminists’ work to secure women the right to vote — and that argument has at least resonated within the mainstream anti-abortion community, which has started name-dropping famous feminists.
The Susan B. Anthony List is now one of the most powerful anti-abortion organizations in the nation; in mid-January, it pledged $52 million to reelecting President Donald Trump and anti-abortion Senate candidates. (That name also hints at the group’s desire to be the women-led, right-wing answer to EMILY’s List, the powerful Democratic group devoted to electing women who back abortion rights.) And on Friday, during her speech to the crowd of screaming protesters, March for Life President Jeanne Mancini spoke reverently of Paul. Highlighting women’s ability to vote, and just how hard women can fight to achieve their political goals, was a potent message to send in an election year — especially as she spoke before and after Trump, the first sitting president to address the March for Life in person.
“We recognize, as the suffragists did, that a woman’s capacity to have a child is amazing and it’s inherent to who she is as a person,” Mancini told the crowd of thousands. “It’s not a liability, it’s a gift.”
Neither Mancini nor Marjorie Dannenfelser, who leads the Susan B. Anthony List and who also spoke at the March, explicitly identified herself as a feminist. And Oaks pointed out that the “pro-woman” terminology remains vague enough to mean just about anything to anyone.
“If you hear that, and you have a feminist perspective, you might think that’s what you’re hearing. But if you don’t, you can think, ‘Oh, pro-woman is pro-traditional womanhood or motherhood,’” Oaks said. “So it’s a phrase that can be interpreted to fit in line with your core beliefs, or to shape them, at the same time.”
For Foster, though, the theme was a victory. She compared the rise of anti-abortion feminism to the career of an actor who suddenly has a breakout year. “You might look at a woman and say she suddenly became famous, not realizing all the steps of work along the way.”
Cover: Amaya Durand, 20 years old and a self-professed “pro-life feminist,” and her sister protested during the March for Life in front of the Supreme Court.